Stephen King is everywhere right now. Not that he's ever been far from the collective pop-culture consciousness. In the last year or two, however, the King of Horror has experienced a cultural resurgence as seen in movie and television adaptations of his novels and short stories.
In an era dominated by connected cinematic universes and crossover specials, it's almost shocking that it's taken this long for Hollywood to discover the goldmine of connectivity that is innate in King's work. Long before Marvel had Captain America and Thor battle it out together on screen, and before DC's Arrowverse became the staple of The CW, Stephen King was creating an interconnected universe in his writing that has spanned dozens of novels, another dozen short story collections, comic books, and countless other one-off projects.
It's fitting that Hulu's new anthology series based on King's works, Castle Rock, is named for the Maine town that has been the setting for more Stephen King tales than any other. King might write about Small Town USA, but the dialect and slang of so many of his stories are unmistakably Maine. For proof, one need look no further than Fred Gwynne's thick Mainer drawl as he advises "Sometimes, dead is bettah" in Pet Sematary.
King's novels, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Dead Zone are all set in Castle Rock. Numerous other short stories, including "The Body" (which later got turned into classic '80s coming-of-age movie Stand By Me) and "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" also call the town home. But Castle Rock isn't a town that exists unto itself; it's mentioned in two dozen other stories set elsewhere. The aforementioned Pet Sematary, for example, mentions Castle Rock when referring to the events that happened in Cujo. The fictional town also previously made the jump to television, having been referenced in King's short-lived series Kingdom Hospital.
Like Castle Rock, Derry is another fictional town that claims an abnormally high number of supernatural events; Stephen King's IT is set there, along with a handful of other novels, including 11/22/63 (which, coincidentally enough, was adapted by Hulu for a previous series). References abound for the second Maine town, sprinkled throughout King's work.
That's what makes King's brand of horror so insidious and lasting. The true terror of Stephen King isn't that his stories are so outlandish or fantastic or difficult to believe; it's that they aren't. The majority of his stories happen to ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary towns. The Dark Tower series, set in a genre-mashing alternate world, might be his magnum opus, and much has been made of the interconnectedness of the Dark Tower universe (and rightfully so). Yet long before The Gunslinger was published in 1982, King's web of terror already had already been spun all over his fictional corner of Maine.
In King's universe, characters in different stories coexist with one another, however tangentially, and cross over into one another's worlds and waking nightmares. Father Callahan, the tainted and desperate priest of Salem's Lot, was last seen in the book riding a bus out of town in 1975; three decades later he marched back onto our pages in Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in the Dark Tower series, where he becomes a major supporting character in the final three books. Same goes for Patrick Danville, the little boy saved at the end of Derry-set Insomnia for a mysterious purpose in 1994, only for that purpose to be revealed ten years later in the final book of the Dark Tower series when he serves a small but crucial role in helping gunslinger Roland Deschain reach the fabled tower, said to be the nexus of all worlds.
Anyone writing about King's character connections would be remiss, of course, to not mention Randall Flagg. The Man in Black, the ultimate baddie and King's embodiment of pure villainy, chaotic evil to the core. He is the specter that slips and glamours his way throughout the connected worlds of Stephen King, sowing discord and death where he goes:
"He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself." - The Stand
While Flagg's evil has generally been too vast for King's more self-contained stories (he appears as the main antagonist ofThe Stand and Eyes of the Dragon, along with the Dark Tower franchise, predominantly), there is almost no corner of King's world his corruption hasn't somehow infected. He has a dozen monikers—The Ageless Stranger, The Walkin' Dude, The Dark Man, Walter O'Dim—and he uses them all throughout the pages of Stephen King's stories, from the towns of Jerusalem's Lot and Derry and Castle Rock, to worlds beyond our own.
Yet King's interconnectedness isn't always so vast and sweeping. He is, after all, a writer with small town roots and a grounded ethos and his connections are also of the mundane and local sort. The prolific author published both Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game in 1992 and a momentary connection was made between Dolores and Jessie Burlingame when the former looks into a well and the latter looks under the bed during a solar eclipse and, briefly, see visions of one another. On their own, the two moments appear random until both books are read, then it becomes another deliberate thread in the terrible and wonderful web he's woven through his world.
King's tendency to keep characters in his back pocket for years, sometimes decades, only to bring them off the bench at a key moment is a trademark of his universe. In his world, they are not fictional characters that cease to exist once the final page of a book is closed. They exist and live their own lives, fighting their own battles and personal demons; it's simply that they do it off-page where we can't see them, the same way we might go years without thinking about an old friend only for them to come back into our lives and pick right up where we'd once left off. No matter how far King and his characters roam, however, they somehow always find their way back to that twisted little town of Castle Rock.